Former Reds

Ryan Freel, CTE and catcher collisions

A report released this week about former Reds player Ryan Freel concludes that the high-energy outfielder had been suffering from a degenerative brain disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) when he committed suicide last year.  The website SportsNet re-published an article by reporter Brett Popplewell that offers a stunning narrative of Freel’s life and final few days. Warning: It’s not light holiday reading.

CTE is a brain disease that, thus far, can be diagnosed with certainty only post-mortem. Here are the symptoms:

Dr. Ann C. McKee, Co-Director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, wrote in “Brain,” a scientific-journal, that “CTE is clinically associated with symptoms of irritability, impulsivity, aggression, depression, short-term memory loss and heightened suicidality that usually begin eight to 10 years after experiencing repetitive mild traumatic brain injury.”

Dr. McKee, who mainly studies the brains of deceased football players and military veterans, has been described both as someone trying to kill football and also the one who can save it. Research is showing CTE to be a tragic byproduct of professional sports broadly and now, with Ryan Freel as its first documented case, in major league baseball.

Ryan Freel’s family found out about the study’s conclusions on the same day that MLB announced home plate collisions were no longer allowed, beginning next season. The rule change has received support from most quarters, including from former catchers who are now big league managers. Johnny Bench, catcher for the Big Red Machine, explained his strong support for the new rule in an interview with Dan Patrick.

One vocal critic of the rule change was Bench’s teammate Pete Rose, who wondered, “What’s the game coming to?” Pete went on to say in an interview with Hal McCoy, “I’ve thought and thought about it. The only concussions I can remember recently in baseball is Justin Morneau, and he got that sliding into second base.”

Charlie Hustle, meet Devin Mesoraco.

43 thoughts on “Ryan Freel, CTE and catcher collisions

  1. I posted this earlier elsewhere, but since this is the approriate spot I thought I would re-post. (I often repeat myaelf, just ask my congregation).

    The test from Ryan Freel are back and he was diagnosed from suffering from CTE, level 2, which is catergorized as having symptoms including profound depression and memory loss. It certainly is possible that this was contributory to the tragic ending of his life. I read an interview conducted with his step-father who was grateful, as it puts some closure on this tragedy. This is the first confirmed diagnosis for a MLB player. On a personal note this is very sobering. I have epilepsy and some memory issues which is believed to be at least partially due to a concussion syndrome (I recently suffered my fourth confirmed one). While I would never wish this on anyone, those of us who have a similar diagnosis are grateful that the seriousness of this condition is finally coming to light. When I was younger, I was told I “just got my bell rung” and it was laughed off after some Vicodin. It’s certainly no laughing matter. RIP Ryan. I truly believe that not only did you inspire people with your all out playing style, but you are still helping to provide hope and help today. Thanks.

    As an addendum, ‘slipping away’ mentally has always been my greatest fear. That is the main reason when I go to minister in a nursing home I look for the nearest exit as soon as I can. I’m sure for athletes who have been used to being in charge of their bodies and who are disciplined enough to do things that most of us can’t, it has to be exceptionally fearful to become out of control. I am grateful that this is now a top priority among health care providers, I am just sorry so many like Ryan had to suffer to make it so.

  2. WVU Hospitals has done some wonderful research on TBI and has one of the finest staff and facilities in the nation. They were out front on the research of former WVU and Cincinnati Bengal WR Chris Henry after his tragic accident. They also did wonderful precedent setting treatment on the lone survivor of the Sago Mine disaster a few years back.
    It a fairly new field of study, and we are just at the tip of the iceberg on the study of brain injuries and just beginning the learning curve on the treatment of such injuries.

  3. The story isn’t clear, nor can I remember, but my impression is that the bulk of Freel’s concussions were fielding related, such as the collision with Norris Hopper, or running into walls. I don’t know what baseball can really do about those. Some baseball collisions, such as between the second baseman and centerfielder, can actually be more violent than football collisions, because the fielders aren’t really anticipating any contact, whereas in football players (notwithstanding the Bengals punter) are generally on the lookout all the time.

    But play-at-the-plate collisions can be mostly mitigated by a change in the rule that would require a runner to slide, or else he is automatically out. There will still be contact at home, such as when the throw is sufficiently up the l3B ine that the catcher, ball and runner all converge at the same time. But as much as I’ve always appreciated aggressive play, there just isn’t any competitive or economic sense in risking guys getting concussions.

    The existing rule is that a catcher cannot block the plate without the ball, just as any baseman cannot be in the baseline. I don’t really know how much it actually happens, because I doubt that a catcher could really take a hit and then catch the ball, but that play is interference under the present rule.

    I have seen some discussion about the types of masks that catchers use, with some anecdotal evidence that the old-fashioned, heavier steel masks actually disburse the blows from foul balls better than the lighter-weight masks or the hockey-style masks. Matt Matheny, if I am not mistaken, wore the hockey mask. I was a catcher and never had any issue with getting jammed when hit in the face, although the cup was an entirely different story. But the ball wasn’t moving fast to cause a concussion, either.

    • @Big Ed: The existing rule is that a catcher cannot block the plate without the ball, just as any baseman cannot be in the baseline. I don’t really know how much it actually happens, because I doubt that a catcher could really take a hit and then catch the ball, but that play is interference under the present rule.

      Key is “take a hit”; and I agree that is not likely. However, if the catcher can get away with delivering (initiating) a hit as he catches the ball that’s a different thing.
      I did it a time or three at the HS level 45 or so years ago. It would probably get me banned nowadays, even before the latest on the concussion issues but it wasn’t hard to do if the throw was coming on line and the runner was committed to standing up. Just like football, low man wins.

    • @Big Ed: I think Ryan Freel was unfortunately for himself the perfect storm of personality imperfections that he couldn’t not play and live like he did or throttle back a few percent to avoid running through/into walls and having the issues he did off of the field. That said, the CTE may well have been the trigger which pushed him over the edge at such a young age.

  4. I still don’t see the reason for involving Pete Rose in this discussion other than to ask an old player about “hard nosed” baseball. The connection between Rose and plate collisions is that Rose crashed into a catcher once in a famous play and caused a shoulder injury.

    Rose even goes on to say Hal ought to ask Bench.

    I always thought there was a great deal of needless macho in blocking the plate for the good of the team, as if one run wins the pennant.

    That aside, it seems like much of the damage to ballplayers is done long before they ever reach the pro ranks.

    • @Johnu1: That aside, it seems like much of the damage to ballplayers is done long before they ever reach the pro ranks.

      Agreed as per some of my youthful antics discussed above.
      And I was raised in a small town rural environment with no youth or high school football. We would play pickup football on Saturday and Sunday afternoons with little to no protective equipment (or adult supervision) and knock the stuffings out of each other despite the fact it was “officially” touch or flag. One wonders how much damage was done in the thousands of games like that across the country in years past.

  5. It’s interesting how some feel that this change, the addition of additional replay and other changes are ruining the game. It will be interesting to see what other changes are down the road for this game and what their overall impact on it will be.

  6. Wow is right, never in a million years would I have imagined Freel suffered so.
    Ryan was one of my favorite players to watch both on tv and live. Every game I attended while he was playing for the Reds he was always there to sign autographs for the fans and throw them a few balls during batting practice.
    My youngest daughter was waiting to get his autograph when a practice ball rolled up beside him, he promptly picked it up, signed it and handed it to her.
    Ryan was a class act on the field!
    I would have never guessed he had such a problem with drinking other than the few times the media reported his DUI’s.
    I hope his daughters and the rest of his family are doing well.

  7. I have to believe Bench was right on this one and Rose was wrong. But, the guilty parties have been the umpires. I believe the rule has been in place that the catchers aren’t suppose to block the plate without the ball. No player can do that at 1st, 2nd, nor 3rd, as well as home plate. Where, if a runner slides and doesn’t make it to the bag solely because the defender was blocking the base, they are suppose to be awarded the base. All of this only started with Rose and Fosse, where I myself still believe Rose was meaning to do a headfirst slide but the “dirt monster” (like the “turf monster” in football) came up to grab him, he lost his footing, and Rose did the next best thing he could do, taking Fosse out.

    I have to say I’m for this. It may very well cause some controversies. But, I just can’t help thinking we were just waiting for an injury that would make Posey’s injury look like a schoolyard booboo.

  8. Individuals suffering from traumatic brain injury, like Freel, are far more likely to have issues with their pituitary gland and hormone deficiencies which can lead to depression, irritability and suicidal ideation. Growth hormone, despite being a lightning rod for controversy in professional sports, has been shown to have increasing effect in regulating these deficiencies. It may very well be that individuals suffering from TBI would benefit from regulated GH use.

  9. I am sorry I couldn’t read this article over the sights of that League of Angels ad in the sidebar.

  10. The news about Freel is tragic indeed, if not surprising.

    As for collisions at home plate, while blocking the plate will be mostly a non-factor, the number of collisions and thus injuries it will eliminate is huge. Catchers are in a horribly vulnerable position, especially just prior to and at the moment they receive the ball. I caught many years and in a few leagues they had similar no collision rules. Still, I suffered two confirmed concussions and probably a handful of undiagnosed ones during my time playing in leagues with no such rules. Both of my confirmed concussions were caused by collisions at the plate. I think this is good for the game. Now the biggest risk is foul balls off the mask and the batter follow-through to the back of the head.

  11. Looks like our AAA rotation is set then. Rogers, Holmberg, Corcino, O’Brien and Wang. That’s pretty decent depth. Probably about as good as we’ve had for a while.

  12. That story was a tough read, but thanks for posting it. I feel guilty somehow: what I loved about Freel as a player–his intensity and willingness to do anything for the team–was motivated as much by his desperation to keep his job as by any “love for the game”. I cheered him for the very thing that may have contributed to messing up his life and then ending it.

    (BTW, that’s a story that probably should have been written by someone on the Enquirer, no? If local newspapers want to keep their relevance that’s the kind of reporting they should be doing. Freel was a Reds fan favorite, so the Cincinnati paper of record should be out front on the story.)

    Just a sad, sad story. This isn’t a case of a guy who was secretly hurting and just snapped–his family tried to help, but they just couldn’t save him. And those poor little girls….

  13. Anyone who watched the PBS documentary on NFL concussions (ESPN was too gutless to air it) would come away convinced that Freel’s issues were entirely a result of CTE. I don’t know how you can guard against this sort of stuff in baseball other than having a strong post-concussion protocol and meticulous recordkeeping at every level.

    As for football, there’s no way I’ll ever let my son play. The documentary convinced me that no level of routine head trauma is safe. There are other safer ways to experience the character building aspects of sports without jeopardizing your health. Unless there are ironclad liability waivers in triplicate, I don’t know how football will survive the litigation at the amateur levels.

  14. That’s a great article. We used to joke about Farny, the little man that Ryan said he had in his head, but that doesn’t seem so funny any more. Untreated bipolar, alcoholism, CTE, what a deadly combination.

    One pattern was his giving up on rehab and therapy too soon, and the refusal to take medication for biploar, which is not treated by the anti-depressants he was willing to take. Whoever prescribed valium screwed up, that can cause or worsen depression.

    The suffering of his wife and 3 girls is an especially sad part of the story.

    I don’t live near Cincy so didn’t get to see him play live often, but I did see him live on a nite in Philly in August of 2006 when the Reds led the WC chase and Ryan was playing RF and leading off. He threw out a Philly hitter who’d rounded first base too far after a single. The guy could play ball, such a pleasure to watch.

  15. Rose is right, and he may have been known for his play at the plate with Fosse, it is hardly the first or last time he went head first into a base. If you doubt me see the fight with Bud Harrelson in the 1973(?) playoffs. I had the pleasure of watching Del Crandall teaching Mike Sciosia to block the plate and how to protect himself. For those too young to remember, Sciosia was a rock at the plate, no one got by him. Has Sciosia weighed in on this?

    I wonder how many concussions came from running into walls? Are we going to start making them out of some other material? Perhaps they should start using the stuff Nascar uses on their walls. What about all the head first slides into bases? My point is that, as many football players would tell you, if you do not know the danger you are just ignorant.

    I am not discounting the danger of head trauma, just that unless sliding anyway but feet first causes an increased risk. Frankly, any kind of slide causes inherent danger, though a broken ankle is perhaps better than a concussion. As Alex Karras one said “if you dont want to get hit, then put on a tutu(or is it tootoo?)”

    • I had the pleasure of watching Del Crandall teaching Mike Sciosia to block the plate and how to protect himself. For those too young to remember, Sciosia was a rock at the plate, no one got by him. ”

      I seem to recall one Norm Charleton ringing Sciosia’s bell!!!

      • @Sultan of : And he missed how many games? I do not recall him missing many in his career, at least because of injury from a collision. I am not saying that a concussion is not a bad thing, I have had several myself. However, none of them came from playing either football or baseball and I played catcher and nose tackle. My point is that catchers know they are going to get hit and can set themselves most of the time. It is also not that many times that it happens. This is, like in the NFL and NHL, the owners trying to save their investment and protect themselves from a lawsuit. I am skeptical that it is much more than that. Here is what the head of head trauma at Vanderbilt says about concussions in sports: A concussion happens when the brain hits the skull from a sudden loss of momentum. No helmet, or other protection can keep them from happening. You would have to find a way to keep the brain from moving through the viscous matter surrounding the brain and that is not going to happen with our present technology.
        Does anyone know how many games or innings were lost by this kind of a collision versus how many innings are lost to collisions (walls, baseball plays),and HBP?

    • @redmountain: So basically, these players chose to be gladiators who put their quality of life on the line for our entertainment. We can’t remove all the risk from participating in an athletic endeavor, so we can’t make any changes to reduce easily avoidable injuries.

      Is that really the argument you are trying to make?

      (also, note that information regarding the dangers of football & other sports has just recently came to light and in some cases, appears to have either been ignored or covered up by the NFL and/or their media partners)

    • @redmountain: From the article linked above:

      Mike Scioscia, Los Angeles Angels (caught in majors from 1980-92)

      Well, I think everyone is in agreement that the mindless collisions at home plate where a catcher is being targeted by a runner, that needs to be addressed. And I know that will be addressed. I think that it’s easy to say a runner has to slide. But on the other side of the coin, it’s going to be difficult to contain a runner telling him what he has to do and let the catcher have carte blanche to be able to block the plate aggressively. And there will have to be some parameters around the catcher. It’s a little bit of a dicey issue to work your way through, but I’m comfortable in the feeling that it will be addressed and addressed to a satisfactory level, where a runner can still be aggressive going to the plate with a hard slide and the catcher understands the need to have the ball in his possession and what he can do to tag a guy at the plate.

      When I was growing up as a kid in Philadelphia, it was a badge of honor, you were expected to hang in at the plate, and the runner was expected to do everything he could to tag the plate. We’re going back 40 years ago, but the mindset has changed a bit. I think what we’re talking about now is maybe the catcher that is not at all in a position where he’s obstructing or blocking the path from the plate from the runner, and the runner takes the liberty to hit him, just from instincts of saying, I think I’m going to be out, I’m going to go after him hard, when it wasn’t necessary to do, I think that that mindset of a runner coming down third baseline can be adjusted and they can be trained to understand the need, their first instinct is to go with a hard slide and go to the plate. And I think that’s doable.

      • @Steve Mancuso: All this is important but the collision at home plate is likely to produce a concussion how many times? I can see shoulder separations, broken fingers, jammed wrists — but not concussions.

        I am sure the discussion about concussions is identifying the causes, but I keep wondering — again with reference to Pete Rose — is a collision at home plate going to be more likely to cause a concussion than a foul tip?

        Those bang-bang plays are not bashing guys in the head.

        • @Johnu1: Collisions aren’t the largest cause of concussions for catchers. Foul tips and bat swings are. But that doesn’t mean you wouldn’t eliminate one cause when you can, does it? Drunk driving isn’t the largest cause of death in the U.S. either, but we rightly take steps to prevent it. You aren’t saying there aren’t concussions for catchers from collisions, right? Because Devin Mesoraco just had one two years ago, per that link above.

        • @Steve Mancuso: I am all for avoiding any kind of injury but we are discussing collisions at the plate, which are NOT the single leading cause of catcher concussion. Reduing the collisions at the plate is going to have almost no effect on concussions. You cite one example. Catcher collisions are stupid but eliminating them will not have a discernible effect on concussions. That’s my only point. It’s the wrong windmill for the wrong problem.

        • @Johnu1: As I said, both my confirmed concussions were from collisions at the plate. Also as I said, there is still a risk from foul balls and batter follow through. Still, rules in place to avoid collisions at home plate would have prevented both of my confirmed concussions. I think anything that can be done to mitigate that risk should be looked into.

      • @Steve Mancuso: That’s just it, Steve. I think they are going to keep the catchers from blocking the plate more. That, unless they have the ball, they aren’t going to be allowed to block the plate. Just like at the other bases. And, just like if the defender does block the base without the ball, I believe the runner is still awarded the base even if he is tagged out, even if it means the runner scores a run. I believe they are simply going to start to enforce the rule more.

        Thinking about one situation now, where the catcher plainly has the ball and blocking the plate, where the runner still has like a half dozen steps before sliding, with the catcher in position, if the runner looks to run into the catcher now, they may very well throw the runner out of the game.

      • @Steve Mancuso: Thank you. It does not sound like Sciosia thinks the problem is with the catcher at the plate, it is with runners trying to hit the catcher when he does not have the ball. Still it is interesting to hear what Sciosia had to say.

  16. I think what drives this is our societies new found softness. No one requires a player to block the plate or to run into a catcher. If a catcher chooses to block a plate he takes a chance, if a player decides to run into a blocking catcher, he takes a chance. This are grown men.

    Society has grown soft, that people who would not have the testicular fortitude to do so want to impose their softness on others to feel good about themselves.

    If there was a rule requiring catchers to block the plate or to run into the catcher, it would be understandable to remove that rule, in this day and age people want to enforce their preferences on others. See big gulp bans, e-cigarette bans, ect.

    • @Bubba Ho-Tep: Softness is really not part of the conversation. This is about professional athletes who are highly paid being on the disabled list for 90 days. That and some other things.

    • @Bubba Ho-Tep: Yep, Johnny Bench was known for being soft. :roll:

      We got all these internet tough guys running ’round. Once these guys get off their computers, society will toughen right up.

      S

    • @Bubba Ho-Tep: Except every catcher feels pressure to block the plate and potentially take the hit. Nobody wants to be considered less macho for not doing so. So there really isn’t as much of a choice as you would think. In the leagues where I was allowed to block the plate and if I didn’t do so, I would have caught quite a lot of crap about it. This rule eliminates the choice of possibly getting drilled or failing to block the plate, catching a ton of grief from your teammates, coaches, and the media.

  17. Actually it’s about grown adults making decisions on their own, it’s pretty easy if you don’t wanna get hit, don’t block the plate. No rule needed.

  18. What is a scary reality is that some people deal with these same problems and don not have the same love and support of Ryan. If his family, who seems to have done all the right things, couldn’t save his life, it really makes you feel for those who have no support system.

  19. Finally, how many runners trying to score are going to break something when they slide? I would suggest that sliding will be more dangerous injury wise than running into the catcher. Time will tell. Perhaps we will soon have bubble wrap walls, balls with a soft center, no sliding, no tackling, no blocking, no high shots on goal, no checking, and finally; running. I am not being serious, but the satire is there.
    To those saying athletes need protection I would say : If the idea is that you do not want to think about athletes being somewhat gladiatorial you are perhaps a little naive about that. The NFL has been built on offering gladitorial combat. The difference is that the people who play the games are willing participants.

    • @redmountain:

      1) Baseball isn’t football. If catchers are unable to block the plate, the risk of injury will go down significantly without sacrificing anything to the quality of baseball.

      2) I don’t necessarily have an issue with football players putting their quality of life on the line where it is rational to do so. But it’s hard to make rational decisions where they have incomplete information. Somehow, I doubt a bunch of uneducated kids are going to make rational decisions, but the NFL, at a minimum has a responsibility to protect their product.

      In 25 years, I doubt we’ll recognize American football. I don’t think that’s a bad thing either.

      • @CP: No amount of legislation is going to keep kids from taking a skateboard off a concrete ramp either. I am all for making the game safer and I can’t see that the proposed legislation is going to impair the quality of play in MLB.

        I simply assert, as per the original comments of this post, that the discussion about preventing collisions at home plate is more about shoulders, knees, thumbs, maybe even spines — but it’s not about concussions. Reducing crashes at home plate is going to have anecdotal impact on concussions, at best.

        It’s just taking one subject, adding it to another semi-related subject and forging a conclusion.

        If you want to reduce the risk of concussion, telling Aroldis Chapman to not throw 100 mph fastballs at Andrew McCutchen’s head.

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